Order, Memory, and Anxiety in Borges’ Fiction
The fundamental questions of how and why we read have an infinitude of answers, none of which entirely ‘do the job,’ simply because they bear too closely upon the automatic, (and therefore, to us, secret) processes of the mind; the act of reading is too closely related to the act of living in the world for us to comprehend definitively. There are few writers who understand and exploit this primal link more persistently than Jorge Luis Borges. One of the ways in which he forces us to examine the parallels between reading and existing (I use the word ‘force’ because it is not always a pleasant confrontation) is through the thematic use of memory.
I. Total Recall
“It is because I forget that I read.”
-Roland Barthes, S/Z
One of the most masterful treatments of the memory theme is in “Funes the Memorious”, the brilliantly, (and somewhat absurdly), touching story of a man who cannot live under the strain of his natural and inescapable ability to remember everything perfectly.
The story begins with the words “I recall”, and immediately we are plunged into the realm of memory-we understand that what we are about to read is a semblance of a reminiscence. Jon Stewart calls attention to the importance of the repetition of this verb in the opening paragraphs of the story: “The continual use of this verb clearly foreshadows the most important element of the character of Funes-his prodigious mnemonic powers: but there is more to it than this. Borges continually uses the same verb and with it brings together a number of scattered and seemingly chaotic memories that he has of Funes. The point of this repetition is to underscore his own impoverished memory of Funes.” (p.74) But Stewart neglects to take this point to its logical and important conclusion; the narrator’s ‘impoverished memory’ is not merely a foreshadowing of Funes’ infinitely rich one-it comes to be, in fact, the necessary circumstance, and the subject of the story.
Borges tells us that the story grew out of his own bouts of insomnia: “I remember that I used to lie down and try to forget everything, and that led me, inevitably, to remember everything. I imagined the books on the shelves, the clothes on the chair, and even my own body on the bed… and so, since I could not erase memory, I kept thinking of those things, and also thinking: if only I could forget, I would certainly be able to sleep.” (p.27) As many critics point out, it is not wise to take Borges’ word with regard to his own work as final, however, later on in this short interview, he voices what I see as the essential fact of the tale: “Funes, the country boy, could not have written [this] story.” (p.28)
In the context of Borges, this of course means several things, but one of its functions is to link, symbolically, life and narrative. Funes could not have written this story for the same reason that he could not go on living; “creation depends on omissions and omission means discontinuity.” (p.112) The ability to forget is prerequisite, not only to sleep and to life, but to storytelling. Thus we might read the narrator’s “I recall” as something like “Because I have forgotten so much, I am able tell you this…”.
Narrative is simply the arrangement of events into some kind of order; telling the story of one’s own life, or self-narration, is thus an organization of memory. But if the memory of every second of our existence clamored for a place of equal importance, we would be at a loss to tell our own stories. More than this, we would be unable to salvage meaning from the chaotic and arbitrarily juxtaposed scenes of our lives; it is the terrible dread and anxiety of this dilemma that makes Funes’ life impossible: “Our principal antidotes to universality and immortality are death and forgetting. Because they confirm our mortality and our individual identity, death and forgetting are what make the universe bearable, real for us.” (p.53)
Enter the reader; as readers, our primary activity is trying to find meaning in the ordered arrangement of the events that, (supposedly), hang together to constitute “Funes the Memorious”. Michel Foucault, describing his reaction to a portion of “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” writes: “That passage from Borges kept me laughing a long time, though not without a certain uneasiness that I found hard to shake off.” (p.xvii) This ‘uneasiness’ is a common response to reading Borges-he is not a comforting writer. Foucault is referring to a passage in which Borges, ‘quoting’ “a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge”, reels off a fantastic and ridiculous list of animal categories. Foucault goes on to postulate that this readerly anxiety stems from our glimpse at “the disorder in which fragments of a large number of possible orders glitter separately in the dimension, without a law or geometry.” In presenting the reader with this chaotic, and therefore meaningless, conjunction of orders, Borges implicitly spotlights and calls into question our own modes of organization and synthesis.
The theme is different, (“The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” deals with encyclopedic knowledge and the dangerous absurdity of language), but we can trace the same uneasy reaction as Foucault does in our reading of “Funes the Memorious”. We jump into this story with all our readerly expectations on the alert, our ability to generate meaning at the ready, our guns half-cocked; at every turn, Borges works to rattle our complacency.
We understand that Funes cannot live because he cannot forget. The uneasiness begins, however, when we understand that it is only because the narrator forgets that he can tell us his story. What exactly has he forgotten? If he had remembered more, or differently, how would the ‘meaning’ of the story changed? How do we forget anyway? Is forgetting a loss or a repression? How do we decide what we want to remember? These are the questions that stand between the reader and meaning. In trying to answer them though, we stumble upon that same disordered order that caused Foucault so much anxiety; we are, in a sense, forced upon the realization that our ability to derive meaning is wholly reliant on an arbitrary and involuntary process of elimination, and, depending on how far we wish to push the metaphor, perhaps even repression. A certain readerly sweat is understandable.
It must be said, though, that we do not go without a certain measure of compensation for our anxiety; as Foucault’s discomfort was accompanied by laughter, so there is no shortage of readerly pleasure in “Funes”. There is his name, with its faint suggestion of somebody wiping away a tear; and we cannot deny the pathos (nor Borges’ tenderness for his subject) in the description of Funes, restless, exhausted, wide awake, turning towards the part of town he doesn’t know, or “imagin[ing] himself at the bottom of a river, rocked (and negated) by the current,” (p.137) in order to get some rest from the incessant and senseless din of total memory.
II. Memory and Identity
At 84, Borges published another story that deals with the theme of memory-this time the treatment is slightly more serious, our unease a little less contained. In “Shakespeare’s Memory”, we see the ultimate ripening of Borges’ prose; those clipped sentences and pruned paragraphs, which once felt as if they sprung from a well of mastery and wit, now seem to be aimless, almost confused, as if etched out of a deep-seated and all-devouring longing.
The story follows Hermann SØrgel, a lifelong Shakespearian scholar, who is offered the inheritance of Shakespeare’s memory. The reader, along with SØrgel, must bear in mind what is being invoked. This is the four-hundred year old memory of a man many people consider to be the most brilliant in the world; the reader’s inclination is to consider it a treasure of inconceivable value. This is our first mistake, or at least, it might be.
Hermann’s immediate reaction to this strange offer is frustratingly blank: “It was as though I had been offered the ocean.” (p.510) This is brilliant syntactical composition; not only does it mean nothing, (how are we to think it would feel if we were offered the ocean?), it simultaneously invokes infinite fluidity, giving the reader some premonition of anxiety. Upon the verbal acceptance, “something happened; there is no doubt of that. But I did not feel it happen. Perhaps just a slight sense of fatigue, perhaps imaginary.” (p.511) This is strange for two reasons: first of all, it confounds any grandiose expectations we may have had regarding the magic of the transference; what is perhaps stranger, though, is the multiplication of bodies at play. There are several perspectives behind this paradoxical passage: an objective one, for whom “there is no doubt” that something happened; a subjective one, who did not feel it; and an imaginary self, the projection of “perhaps just a slight sense of fatigue”. This muddle of identities will continue throughout the story, confounding narrative fixity, and lending the story a profound restlessness.
Possession of Shakespeare’s memory is at first mundane; Hermann, who had thought that he would “in some way, be Shakespeare”, remembers only old English pronunciations, dreams of the Bard’s next door neighbor. He publishes an explication of a sonnet, having “forgotten that Samuel Butler had advanced that same thesis in 1899” (p.512); his visit to Stratford-on-Avon is, “predictably enough, sterile.”(SM, p.512) This banality is slightly comical. Perhaps, like Hermann, we thought that he would become Shakespeare; or perhaps the discrepancy between the wonder of the proposition and the distinctly quotidian nature of these results is so great we cannot help but chuckle, although not without some of Foucault’s uneasiness.
From here on in the reader enters strange, (or, more accurately, even stranger), territory. Hermann’s feelings about possessing “the other man’s” memory become harder to make out. On the one hand we are told: “For one curiously happy week, I almost believed myself Shakespeare. His work renewed itself for me.”(SM, p.513) Two paragraphs later we are told: “Shakespeare’s memory was able to reveal to me only the cicrumstances of the man Shakespeare. Clearly, these circumstances do not constitute the unique circumstances of the poet; what matters is the literature the poet produced with that frail material.”(SM, p.513, my italics) Oddly enough though, the most intriguing thing said about possessing Shakespeare’s memory is also the most completely ambiguous, the most absurdly offhand: “I knew states of happiness and darkness that transcend common human experience.”(SM, p.513) The barren words and bare composition of this sentence are genius; calling attention to the discrepency between the words and all they might imply, this one-sentence paragraph conveys a weary resignation to the hopeless inadequacy of language to represent experience. (It may also be interesting to note that Shakespeare managed to put “happiness and darkness that transcend common human experience” into words quite well; this leads us nowhere in particular).
Abruptly, any enchantment Hermann might have been under disappears, and possession of the memory now becomes sinister: “I noted with some nervousness that I was gradually forgetting the language of my parents. Since personal identity is based on memory, I feared for my sanity.”(SM, p.514) He wishes to reclaim himself, and verbally bestows the memory upon a total stranger, over the phone. If we feel that there is something hidden underneath Hermann’s incoherent telling of the story, (he tells us himself, “I do not know how to tell a story,”) it is at this point that we are given what may be a clue.
After hanging up the receiver, he repeats the words “Simply the thing I am shall make me live.”(SM, p.515) Sylvia Molloy writes about Borges’ use of this same Shakespeare quote in his “History of the Echoes of a Name”: “Shakespeare’s untruthful French soldier in All’s Well That Ends succeeds perhaps… in obliquely naming himself and acheiving ephemeral being. Parolles continues to be and to speak through an imposture that he knows to be false, yet that imposture keeps him going: ‘Captain I shall be no more;/ But I will eat and drink, and sleep as soft/ As captain shall: simply the thing I am shall make me live.’ From that tenuous substance, of whose deceptive nature he is well aware, Parolles… draws his self.” (p.129) Somewhere between the realization that “a man’s memory is not a summation; it is a chaos of vague possibilities”, and the understanding that “personal identity is based on memory”, Hermann glimpses that vortex of meaning conjured up by Foucault. In repeating Parolles’ words, he resigns himself to continuing to live “through an imposture he knows to be false”, but that will “keep him going”.
There are also echoes here of Borges’ achingly beautiful piece on Shakespeare, “Everything and Nothing” , which starts out by saying, “there was no one inside him”, and goes on to tell how he “trained himself to the habit of feigning that he was somebody, so that his ‘nobodiness’ might not be discovered,” and, “became an actor, that person who stands upon a stage and plays at being another person.” Borges finally says, paradoxically, “No one was as many men as that man.” In inheriting the memory of someone who simultaneously had ‘no one inside him’ and everyone inside him, in glimpsing a space where these two things mean the same, Hermann himself is annihilated.
The final thing to note about this story is that this annihilation is permanent. Whereas Molloy reads a kind of ironic glee into Parolles’ words, these same words in the mouth of Hermann echo more like the quiet hysteria of devastation, the desparate attempt to pull himself back together; in the psychic panic induced by the vision of his own nothingness, Hermann fails to understand that this is impossible. Throughout the telling of the story, he lapses twice into ‘the language of his parents’, the forgetting of which had caused him to fear for his sanity, and the use of which now suggests that he is assuring himself of his identity. And there is the fact that he has “forgotten the date on which [he] decided to free [himself]”; in a story so thoroughly about memory, we cannot help but think this is odd, that it is somehow crying out for a Freudian interpretation, even though we understand that, in the realm of Shakespeare’s Memory, Freud is little more than an absurdity. Finally, it is the tone of the story, with its unsettling hints of elegiac disembodiment, that signals Hermann’s failure to fully recover from his experience; it is this same tone that conveys to the reader, in its intricate meaninglessness, a horror quite similar to that of Hermann’s.
III. The ‘False Imposture’
It is impossible to attempt a study of Borges without feeling an initial moment’s shame at the undertaking; after all, ‘understanding’ is imposing order on chaos to produce meaning, and in dealing with Borges, we are dealing with a literary anarchist whose one burning subject was the absurdity, (and fragility) of order. And yet, as readers in crisis, (confronted with a text we don’t know how to read), we must look to the author himself, and read as he wrote; Molloy notes that Borges, much like Parolles, writes out of “an imposture that he knows to be false, yet that…keeps him going.” Writing about memory in the way he did was one more way of undermining our methods of reading-in so doing, he forces us to question the way we construe ourselves and our world.
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